For Columbus residents who live and work in these stunning buildings every day, the new installations allowed them to see their old surrounding with new eyes.

“Columbus had started to become known for what it did, not for what it is doing. We thought this was a perfect moment to reassert the relevance of Columbus’s architectural legacy and to to catalyze the next generation to take action in service of this legacy,” explains Richard McCoy, curator of Exhibit Columbus and director of Landmark Columbus, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the town’s design legacy.

Saving Columbus

Programs like Exhibit Columbus are crucial given the absence of preservation laws in the town nicknamed “Athens of the Prairie.” Except for the seven buildings named as historic landmarks by the US National Park Service, technically anyone with the money and bravado can bulldoze any building. An “architecturally-significant” bank designed by Fisher and Spillman Architects was leveled in 2014. Any of the town’s architectural marvels, say Robert Venturi’s trapezoid-shaped fire station, could conceivably become a future Taco Bell. With no millionaire benefactors coming forward to continue Miller’s legacy after his death in 2004, the town is on its own.

“People assume we’ve been protecting our landmarks and we actually haven’t been,” said Erin Hawkins to regional news outlet Belt. “We’re fortunate that people want to do the right thing, but that certainly isn’t assured. Our architecture and design heritage is what sets Columbus apart. It’s so much a part of our identity. And if we no longer had those assets, we would have to be doing things very differently around here.”

Columbus, the movie

A stunning new film starring John Cho may lend Columbus’s beleaguered landmarks the protection of greater fame.

The film’s director, Kogonada, says he decided Columbus would be the right setting for his moody feature about an unlikely friendship between two characters figuring out their relationships with their parents. An acolyte of the Japanese silent film master Yasujirō Ozu, Kogonada says that he sensed the “hopeful, melancholic and poignant” aspects of modernism in Columbus. “There’s something overwhelming about seeing a collection of these modern buildings in a small town,” he said. “For me it was almost a case study [about the question]: ‘does design make a difference?’”

After spending a month in town, Kogonada says he got a sense why residents of Columbus aren’t more overtly self-promotional about their modernist gems, as Chicago or New York natives tend to be. “Many of them knew that their town is known for architecture, but many found it hard to see what the big deal was because they’re so familiar with it. But there were also some who could see it and it was a different town for them,” he explains.

“I think this is true with all architecture in general…It’s the only art form that we walk through and becomes part of our daily lives, so it’s very easy for it not to be an art object,” Kogonada. He says that after almost every screening of Columbus, former residents would approach him to express their fondness for the town they left.

“It was such a wonderful experience,” reflects Kogonada, who spoke to me before heading back to Columbus for the film’s premiere weekend. “People joked, ‘oh maybe we should make films here all the time.'”

Exhibit Columbus runs through Nov. 26, 2017. The schedule of design and architecture events is on its Facebook page. Columbus, the movie, will be screened at the Architecture & Design Film Festival.

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